by Rabbi Richard Address

Can a congregation create an approach that sees health and wellness as a foundation for programming? For the past year, Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J. has begun to develop a series of programs and approaches, from religious school forward, that speaks to issues of Judaism, health and wellness.

Building on work created by the URJ’s then-Department of Jewish Family Concerns, the program was launched with a special Sunday morning program. The agenda included text study and a series of round table discussions on what congregants saw as priorities. A special Health and Wellness Steering Committee met to prioritize the discussions, which led to the creation of a series of educational forums on issues such as care-giving and decision-making at the end of life.  This year’s schedule of forums will also include one requested by the congregation as a result of last year’s work: Judaism and mental health. The project also touched the religious school, as the education director included discussions on health-related issues at faculty sessions and in some classroom projects. The entire project was tied into the M’kor Cares caring community program. (For a fuller explanation of the program and some resources see “Standing in Life Before God,” The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2012, p. 190-197)

This year, the program will feature an expanded, congregation-wide forum on issues related to illness, health, and healing, and personal stories will be a major focus. This program will be used to launch a requested “next step”: the creation of a congregation-wide cancer support program. This issue emerged from the think tank last year as a major concern to congregants. In November, a special Shabbat will help focus the congregation on this issue, and to assist in this venture, the congregation will work in partnership with the local Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS). This will allow both the congregation and the JFCS to share resources and promote the idea of community. As part of this year’s opening program, JFCS will work with the congregation to train patient advocates, individuals who will be available to assist families in times of crises when discussions with health care workers may be filled with stress.

Why is this important? The Jewish tradition is filled with references to the importance of health and care of the body as a means of standing with God. Our contemporary lifestyle has raised the issue of health and wellness in light of challenging trends that reflect our more sedentary life style. Indeed, one of the positive outgrowths of the URJ’s Sacred Aging project was the realization that issues related to health and wellness are a high priority among baby boomers and older adults.

Creating An Approach to Health and Wellness: One Congregation’s Take M’kor Shalom’s health and wellness project is in its second year. Slowly, we are seeing the language of the program make its way into the vocabulary of the community. It is a first step – but a needed one.

Rabbi Richard Address, D.Min, is the senior rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., and runs the blog Jewish Sacred Aging. He founded and directed the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as specialist and congregation consultant in the program areas of Caring Community and Family Concerns.